What do you say in the face of evil?
The stories from yesterday’s attacks at the Boston Marathon are heartbreaking, gut-wrenching. One in particular stands out to me. A woman was waiting for her husband to cross the finish line when the bombs exploded. For three hours she searched frantically for him, not knowing if he was alive or dead, not knowing if he was frantic and looking for her. Her voice cracked and tears flowed with the raw memory as she told of the moment when she and her husband embraced.
Moments like this, even when they end happily, remind us of our vulnerability. As hard as we try to protect ourselves with heightened security measures, complete invulnerability is impossible. I am vulnerable. My wife is vulnerable. My children are vulnerable. We cannot escape it.
A few hours after the bombing, President Obama addressed our natural desire to carry out justice after these events.
[M]ake no mistake; we will get to the bottom of this. We will find out who did this, we will find out why they did this. Any responsible individuals, any responsible groups, will feel the full weight of justice.
Like the president, I want to take action against evil and I want to know I am secure. I hate admitting that I’m vulnerable. But the president’s words didn’t reassure me. They made me feel more vulnerable because the phrase “full weight of justice” is always a veiled call to violence. The logic of violence is that it’s always committed in the name of justice. The “good” guys and the “bad” guys always have the same justifications for violence – and that justification is justice. Victims – whether in Boston or in Kabul – always see the violence committed against them as evil. When we are under the myth of redemptive violence, each side falsely believes that justice requires violent retaliation.
This leads me to ask these questions:
At what point does our desire for “justice” make us the mirror image of our enemies?
At what point does “justice” become an excuse for revenge?
Does the violence that enforces “the full weight of justice” stop future violence or enslave us to cycles of violence?
In 1995 we had the Oklahoma City bombing. In 1996 we had the bombings at the Atlanta Olympic Games. In 2001 we had 9/11. During the last few years we’ve had shootings at political rallies, shopping malls, movie theaters, places of worship, and at an elementary school. Each time we’ve attempted to enforce the “full weight of justice.” Yet we continue to experience these kinds of horrific events. As we capture, imprison or kill one perpetrator, others emerge and the cycle continue.
How will it end? I don’t know. What I do know is that all of this “justice” hasn’t made me feel safe and secure. I continue to feel defenseless and vulnerable. Violence has rules. Responding to violence with more violence has only led to more and more of it; it clearly has not led to security.
Before we can be delivered from the violence of others, we need to be delivered from our own violence. Today on social media, many people have posted Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” King was trying to empower us. In the face of anger, recriminations and violence, he told us that we have options other than retribution. King’s full quote is worth reading for its call to love and its urgent apocalyptic tone:
Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral destruction. So, when Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies—or else? The chain reaction of evil—hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars—must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation. (Strength To Love, 53)
We will be delivered from evil only when we refuse to respond with evil of our own. Justice will only happen when we follow Jesus’ admonition to love our enemies. True justice, true peace, is only possible with peaceful actions.
Or, as the apostle Paul put it, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”